Aging has long been the neglected stepchild of philanthropy. The elderly are often seen as, well, old — part of the past — and grantmakers like to “invest” in the future: education, medical research, the arts, and so on. Less than 2% of philanthropic dollars go toward traditional aging programs and services, says Lindsay A. Goldman, CEO of Grantmakers in Aging, a consortium of more than 115 funders in the aging space and champion of age-related issues and funding. These grants generally fill gaps left by government programs and services for things like caregivers to help people age in place, home-delivered meals, senior centers, or to catalyze innovation around aging.
The lack of robust funding for aging services reflects a deep-rooted, often unconscious, society-wide ageism. This bias against older people is reflected in the myriad of “anti-aging” products promoted everywhere. If a skin cream or makeup were touted as “anti-Black,” or “anti-Jewish,” it would generate uproar. But ageist marketing gets a pass. This is true even in a cultural moment otherwise focused on equity, diversity and inclusion. Ageism persists despite the fact that older folks are a vulnerable population needing extra care, and one of the “out groups” we’ll all be part of, if we’re lucky.
Our culture’s excessive individualism compounds the problem. People often cite individual actions as the cause for normal age-related physical and cognitive declines. As in, “Well, my mother-in-law wouldn’t have osteoporosis if she’d exercised more and swapped in olive oil for butter. Too many donuts, not enough dumbbells.” This hyper-individualism ignores the fact that we age within a system, and that not all people are equally served. “Not everyone has the opportunity to age well,” says GIA’s Goldman.
When it comes to philanthropy, however, the sector’s notorious disinterest in aging may become a thing of the past, at least according to Goldman. “There’s so much happening and a lot of momentum; it’s really exciting. Foundations that wouldn’t talk to me before now are. People who said, ‘We don’t do aging,’ are now seeing that older people are involved in all kinds of other areas,” she says.
Aging as an equity issue
Much of the momentum around today’s age-related giving comes from the growing interest in intersectional funding. Growing old makes people ever more vulnerable to other forms of discrimination or disadvantage they may already face, including racism, sexism, housing insecurity, isolation, ablism and homophobia. Seen through an intersectional lens, funding focused on housing, urban development, transportation, broadband access, healthcare, food insecurity, socialization — you name it — all connect to aging, particularly as our society steadily grows older.
Gender is a great example. Aging is a women’s issue since women tend to live longer and be less financially secure than men. As many funders are now beginning to recognize, this means that programs designed to shore up women’s financial power are also programs for aging.
Leaders in the intersectional funding space include the Metta Fund, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that focuses on aging and racial equity, and Point32Health, a New England-based partnership among healthcare organizations that sees behavioral health, clinical innovation, health equity and community involvement as interlocking parts of the wellbeing whole. Goldman also points to women such as MacKenzie Scott and Melinda French Gates for some of the exciting action around funding in aging, due to the enormity of their grants and the attention thus generated. “They are the ones who are saying, ‘This is a population we need to pay attention to.’ That is helping to move the field faster.”
Philanthropy for aging in a time of COVID
For some funders, COVID shed new light on the challenges of growing old. The pandemic highlighted the toll of social isolation, a reality for many older people. It also showed the connection between illness and digital acumen, or lack thereof. While plenty of people over the age of 75 can order an Uber on an iPhone or get an avocado toast delivered by DoorDash, low-income older folks tend to have less tech savvy and less access to computers and the internet than do wealthier ones. So do those with low education levels, people living in rural communities and those in underserved urban neighborhoods.
As a result of the growing awareness of the impact of the digital divide on health, “there is a lot of federal funding coming down the pipe really fast for digital inclusion,” says Goldman. This includes money for programs addressing affordability, accessibility and digital literacy, and presents an opportunity for public-private partnerships, another trend impacting funding for aging. Such new partnerships and “braided” funding models are growing out of the awareness of the need for an “all-hands-on-deck approach” to developing solutions to improve aging in our society, says Goldman. GIA recently extended membership to public funders for the first time, including Americorps Senior and the New York State Office for the Aging.
The COVID crisis breathed new life into another area of funding that impacts older people — caregiving. By exposing the need for caregiving — for older people and for children — and the challenges faced by caregivers, the pandemic helped galvanize funding for the field, again often through an intersectional approach. More funders are noting that the people providing care tend to be low-income women, often mothers working more than one job to support their families. Many are immigrants. “We can’t say that we value aging if we don’t value the paid and unpaid workforce that’s required to support us as we age. In philanthropy, we have an obligation to ensure that the grants we’re making are paying people at least a living wage,” says Goldman.
This realization is allowing for more creative approaches that combine workforce funding with money for aging, a somewhat new strategy. “Traditionally, philanthropy has focused on the workforce pot of money and the care recipient pot of money,” says Goldman. “But it’s a false dichotomy that has limited thinking. These are fluid categories, not mutually exclusive. That paid caregiver also goes home and cares for her aging mother and two-year-old. Our lives are messy, but our funding has been siloed.”
The “great resignation” is further highlighting the link between workforce issues and aging. Goldman says GIA members are struggling to fill jobs for caregivers, geriatric social workers, geriatric nurses, and home health aides. This has clued some traditional funders in the aging space to the fact that they need to focus on workforce development, too.
The future of aging
The growing interest in cross-generational connection is also bringing cash to organizations focused on aging. “There are a lot of new players who are starting to recognize that a society that engages people of all ages is a stronger, healthier society,” says Goldman. In many “Gen-2-Gen” programs, older folks are not just recipients, but also valued contributors. “When we think about solutions to problems, we don’t usually think about older people as resources. We kind of dismiss people,” says Goldman. The Gen-2-Gen movement is working to change that paradigm. “There is a great deal of need, but there is also a great deal of opportunity.”
Goldman wants funders of all types to aim for inclusive, age-diverse funding approaches, rather than those that perpetuate age segregation. “GIA works to mobilize financial and human capital to make that happen, now and in the future, if we’re lucky. Because aging is a privilege.”